The Myth of the Evil Editor

Recently, I participated in an online conversation touching on self-publishing, in which a self-published writer commented on how happy she is that her books are truly her own–published exactly as she intended them, not mutilated or adulterated by some big publishing house editor whose main goal is to turn out cookie-cutter authors.

When I replied that I’ve worked with four editors at six publishers–both Big Six houses and smaller independents–over the course of eight novels, and have never had my work mutilated or adulterated, much less transformed into a cookie, she told me that I was “very lucky,” for she knew of many traditionally published writers who’d had the opposite experience.

I didn’t ask her who those writers were. If I had, I suspect I would have gotten a vague response about a friend of a friend, or an article she’d seen at some point, or some other form of non-first-hand information. Like the fear of theft, the notion that the main function of publishing house editors is to turn books into clones, and that authors who publish with larger houses can expect to have their manuscripts slashed and burned with callous disregard of their original voices and intents, is largely unfounded. Nevertheless, it’s quite common. I often see it used to explain a choice to self-publish (“I want my book to remain MY BOOK!”), or presented as one of the reasons why self-publishing is superior.

At its best, the author-editor relationship is a partnership. The editor doesn’t want to turn your book into a cookie; she wants it to be as good as it can possibly be, so it will sell robustly and make money for everyone. To that end, she suggests ways in which your manuscript could be strengthened and improved, and leaves it to you to make those changes in the best way you can. You’re well-advised to take her comments seriously–she’s a professional, after all, and writers who believe they don’t need an editorial eye are letting their egos run away with their good sense. But it is still your book, and if you disagree with your editor you’re free to say so, and to make a case either for keeping things as they are or for making a different change.

My best editorial relationships have been like this. My editor spotted weaknesses or inconsistencies that I missed, and suggested ways to make what was strong in the book even stronger. I didn’t always agree; in that case, we talked about it. Sometimes I realized that my editor was right; sometimes she realized that I was right. Either way, at the end of the process, I wound up with a work that was still completely my own–but better.

Even in my most adversarial editorial relationship–with an editor who inherited my book and neither liked nor understood it–there was never a question of being strong-armed into making changes I didn’t agree with. I simply said no, and that was that.

Does every traditionally published writer have a fabulous relationship with his or her editor–the kind that is the subject of those gushing thank-yous in the Acknowledgements sections of so many books? Of course not. Are there horror stories? Of course there are (I’m thinking of the tale I heard from an author whose editor inexplicably decided to transform one of her characters into an animal–I swear I’m not making that up). But contrary to the evil editor myth, the horror stories aren’t the norm. The experience of most of the published writers I know has been more like mine–relationships that range from great to just okay and sometimes poor, but that don’t typically involve the kind of manipulation and mutilation that the myth says we should fear.

In fact, the largest number of editorial horror stories I’ve heard have come from not from writers at big and medium-sized publishers, but from unpublished or self-published writers who hired less-than-qualified independent editors (there are a lot of them out there), or from small press authors whose inexperienced publishers employed editors without the proper professional skills. Since smaller publishers often reserve the right to edit without the author’s permission “so long as the meaning of the work is not materially changed,” the author may not have any recourse. By contrast, every contract I’ve ever signed–even the ones with the Big Six–has included a clause ensuring that no substantive editing (other than copy editing) can be done without my approval.

There are many reasons why writers may choose to self-publish, but fear of editors should not be one of them.

First published in Writer Beware Blogs!, 2010

Copyright © Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.


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